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The Haunts of Malta event to tell town's tumultuous history

MALTA – Malta, a village of 1,164 at the 2010 census, has had an interesting – and tumultuous – history since its incorporation in 1869.

Malta was once the largest town in DeKalb County, suffered a devastating fire that destroyed most of its downtown, was the location of a deadly train accident and was the location of the first poured concrete mile of the first intercontinental highway in the United States.

To celebrate and share Malta’s history, a storytelling, music and dancing event, The Haunts of Malta at Town Hall, is planned from 4 to 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28. The event will be held in Malta’s town hall, home to the Malta History and Genealogical Society, 127 N. Third St.

Tickets cost $29 and can be purchased by calling 815-825-9441 or visiting Advance registration is encouraged. A reception will be held after the performance.

The Haunts of Malta at Town Hall is presented by Kishwaukee College and includes collaborations with Dimensions Dance Academy and the band Project Nostalgia.

“It is a special event offered by Kishwaukee College Community Education to celebrate Malta’s history,” said Tammy Newquist, community education specialist with the college. “The history of Malta includes more than train wrecks and the Seedling Mile, which were both very significant. The event is a program that celebrates Malta and Malta’s fascinating history.”

The Haunts event will include songs performed and interpreted by local actors, musicians and dancers. After a narration, a song and/or dance interpreting the history will be performed, connecting the town’s history to music.

“We selected the music, from classic rock to popular songs, to tie in to the stories told,” said Bonnie Miller, lead singer of Project Nostalgia. “From Daughtry, The Monkees, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Evanescence to John Mellencamp, we hope to capture the history in an artistic way. We hope people sing along and feel like they’re a part of living history with the performances and music.”

The event, about an hour and a half long, will tell the history and legends of Malta, from its incorporation as a village in 1869, the creation of the Seedling Mile in 1914 and founding of Kishwaukee College in 1968. Other, more devastating tales of Malta’s history also will be told, including a large fire in 1894, and a deadly train wreck that killed four people and injured 35 others in 1901.

At its peak in the mid-to-late 1800s, Malta was the largest town in DeKalb County. There were four churches, four hotels, four lodges, seven doctors, a dentist, a flour mill and grain storage facilities. Stock yards were built along the railroad in town and for many years, Malta was the biggest grain and livestock shipping point between Chicago and the Mississippi River.

Malta’s growing commercial success came to a halt on Sept. 7, 1894, when a late-night fire destroyed the main part of Malta’s business block. The fire destroyed more than 12 businesses and stores; many of the businesses did not have insurance.

Malta was the location of multiple train accidents. One fatal accident occurred in 1867, when a heavily loaded gravel train jumped the tracks and fell into the ditch. As a result, four people were injured and one was killed.

The most disastrous incident was an accident that occurred around 5 a.m. Dec. 26, 1901. A passenger train, part of the Eastern Express from Omaha, collided with a freight train.

The headline of the Daily Inter Ocean newspaper, published in Chicago at the time, read: “Passengers Imprisoned in Pullman Car are Literally Cooked – Coaches Catch Fire and Are Burned to the Trucks – Villagers and Farmers Care for the Victims.”

Steam from the freight train entered through the broken windows of the sleeper car, burning train passengers alive. Four people were killed and 35 others were injured in the accident. The injured were taken to Malta’s hotels and the town hall, where they were treated by three Malta doctors and later by doctors from DeKalb and Chicago.

“There are many stories of Town Hall being haunted, but I’m neither a believer nor a nonbeliever,” said Dave Woodin, president of Malta’s Historical and Genealogical Society. “There was a door that led out to the train tracks, it was the closest accessible location to the accident. There’s a lot of history in this building, which makes it a fitting home for our society.”

The town hall building, built in 1873, had many other functions through the years: it was the governing building of the village and primary location for voting; actors from Chicago performed on the town hall’s stage; square dances and basketball games were held; and a kindergarten was housed in the building.

In the early days of Kishwaukee College, the town hall housed college physical educational classes. After some time, the building fell into disrepair until the historical and genealogical society took over the building about 30 years ago. The building now houses a small museum and is used for meetings and events.

During The Haunts event, Cheryl Johnson of Rochelle will portray her great-great grandmother, Bertha Bradt. Samuel Bradt, Bertha’s husband, was the state superintendent of highways under Illinois Gov. Frank Lowden.

“Their goal was to get Illinois out of the mud and to connect the state to other states,” Johnson said.

Bertha Bradt’s sister was Annie Glidden. Johnson dresses in costume to portray her distant relative and visits second-grade classrooms in DeKalb.

“I’m extremely proud of my ancestors and my family, and it’s an honor to portray them,” Johnson said. “I think it’s important to tell their stories and the stories and history of early DeKalb County. So much interesting history happened here, and I’m happy to help educate and inform others about it.”

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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